Sir Keir Starmer will grill Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab over the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis during the first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions.
Sir Keir is likely to spend his first PMQs as Labour leader questioning Boris Johnson’s stand-in over testing, protective equipment for front-line workers and an exit strategy from the lockdown.
It comes after an RAF plane landed at Brize Norton from Turkey in the early hours of Wednesday, after being sent to collect a shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) – including badly-needed surgical gowns.
The Government is likely to face further questions about its participation in an EU scheme to secure vital equipment after the Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Sir Simon McDonald, made an extraordinary U-turn in withdrawing his own claim that the UK did not take part because of a “political decision”.
Sir Simon wrote to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to say that his earlier evidence had been “incorrect” and reverted to the Government’s defence that the scheme was not initially joined because of a “communication problem”.
He said: “I haven’t seen that exchange but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary (Dominic Raab) and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.
“The invitation, when it came in to the Department of Health – and I know there has been debate about whether it was sent to the wrong email address initially – to participate in this scheme in an associate way, because we are not members of the EU, came to me for decision and I said yes.
“It was a recommendation and I took the decision in the normal way – that’s the long and short of it.
“But the impact on our ability to deliver PPE is zero – there is no impact at all because the scheme has not yet made anything available.”
Mr Raab, who is deputising for the PM as he recovers from Covid-19, and Sir Keir will be in the House of Commons chamber among up to 50 MPs permitted to attend while obeying social distancing rules.
Some 120 more can take part remotely through the Zoom video-conferencing platform in the first PMQs since Parliament rose early a month ago because of the crisis.
As the death toll exceeded 17,000, the Government came under fire, with its commitment to reach 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month appearing an ambitious hope and a lack of PPE for health and care staff.
The criticism came as Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey joined the voices warning against an early end to lockdown, with Mr Bailey telling the Daily Mail that if “we had a lifting and then (lockdown) came back again, I think that would damage people’s confidence very severely”.
Mr Hancock said it is clear that the “best way to defeat coronavirus is through a vaccine” and that “rapid progress” is being made.
Oxford, where the team is being led by Professor Sarah Gilbert, has said it hopes to have at least a million doses of its vaccine ready in September, while Imperial hopes to start clinical trials in June.
Professor Robin Shattock, from Imperial College’s Department of Infectious Disease, said Covid-19 is a less difficult target than diseases such as HIV or influenza.
“I think we are very confident that some vaccines will come through and work,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
On the issue of Covid-19 testing, Mr Hancock said it is “terrific” that capacity is increasing across the UK, saying it is further ahead than the planned trajectory.
This is despite the fact that less than half of the available coronavirus testing capacity has been used, with 19,316 tests carried out in the 24 hours to 9am on Monday against capacity for 39,250.
Care minister Helen Whately defended the Government’s efforts to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) for health and care workers.
“What the team is doing… is moving quickest on those who have the largest scale that they can supply because we need billions of items of PPE,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
When concerns were first raised about why the UK was not utilising the EU procurement scheme, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Well, we are no longer members of the EU.”
The lack of British involvement in the schemes has led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in Mr Johnson’s administration – a claim denied by Downing Street.
– England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said Government scientific advisers are keeping the evidence on face masks for the public under review. However, he said supplies for health and social care workers must never be jeopardised.
– The Department of Health said 17,337 patients have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Monday, up by 828 from 16,509 the day before.
– Coronavirus was linked to a third of all deaths in England and Wales in the week up to April 10, with the total number of care home deaths increasing almost six-fold in seven days to more than 1,000, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).